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Verner’s Law and the “Was-Were” Alternation

Verner’s law describes a sound change during the Proto-Germanic era. It was first discovered by Danish linguist Karl Verner in 1875.
Verners law as allophones of PIE consonants
The development of Indo-European plosives
in Germanic


Verner’s law can be formulated thus:

The Proto-Germanic voiceless fricatives [f], [θ], [s] and [x] became voiced [β], [ð], [z] and [ɣ] if they were immediately preceded by an unstressed syllable.


Here are two famous examples.

(1) The Proto-Germanic word *['war. θi] '(he/she/it) turned' had the primary stress on the syllable immediately preceding the fricative [θ], as can be seen from its Sanskrit cognate vavárta '(he/she/it) has turned.' Therefore the Old English reflex of this word form is wearþ '(he, she, it) became' with the written symbol <þ> (thorn).

In contrast, the Proto-Germanic word *[wur. ðu.'mi] '(we) have turned' bore the primary stress on the syllable after the fricative, as the Sanskrit cognate shows, vavrtimá '(we) have turned.' The fricative therefore became voiced [ð], and the Old English corresponding word is wurdon '(we) became,' with the grapheme <d>, not <þ>.

(2) In Proto-Indo-European, the word for 'brother' carried the main stress on the first syllable, as in Latin frāter. Thus, the Proto-Germanic cognate was stressed in the same way, *['bro:. θer]. Since the main stress fell on the syllable before the fricative [θ], it remained voiceless. The Old English reflex of this lexeme, brōþor, is therefore written with <þ> (thorn).

Contrast this with the Indo-European word for 'father', which was stressed on the second syllable, as can be seen in Sanskrit pitár or Ancient Greek πατέρ. Therefore, the Proto-Germanic cognate must have had the same stress pattern, *[fa.'ðer]. The syllable preceding the fricative did not carry the main stress of the word and therefore the fricative became voiced [ð]. For this reason, the Old English cognate, fæder, is spelled with <d>, not <þ>.

Karl Verner

The same sound change also affected the Proto-Germanic verb *[‘we.sa.nan] 'to be, live, dwell.' The first and third person singular, past, *[‘was], was not preceded by an unstressed syllable (the word is mono-syllabic after all) and so the fricative remained voiceless [s], as in Old English wæs 'was.' However, the plural past forms carried the stress on the second syllable, *[wē.'zum] '(we) were, lived, dwelled.' Since the syllable before the fricative was not stressed, it became voiced [z].

Foto of Karl Verner

However, another sound change, known as rhotacism, changed all Proto-Germanic non-final *[z] into West-Germanic *[r]. Good illustrations are Gothic máiza, but Old English māra 'more, greater,' or Gothic hazjan, but Old English herian 'praise.' Therefore, the Proto-Germanic *[wē.'zum] surfaces in Old English as wæron 'were,' not as "wæson."

Today, the descendant word pair of wæs-wæron, 'was-were,' is the only example in the English language where the effects of Verner's Law are still visible within a single paradigm.